There has been a lot of talk about work-life balance in and outside of the HR community for some time. For some people, it’s an important factor that businesses need to consider so that they can provide a working environment that motivates employees. Others see it as just another gimmick made up of management buzzwords.
In reality, though, work-life balance is important. Research by Brookman Solicitors found that 63% of people planned to make changes to improve their work-life balance in 2018. For some, that included moving to a new job as their existing one was not able to support them.
Given that recruiting new people is expensive and training them can be time-consuming, supporting work-life balance remains a strong way to protect the bottom line of your business.
Working Longer Hours
Research published by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) shows that 11% of British employees regularly work more than 48 hours per week. The number of employees putting in these long shifts increased more than any other EU country during the 1990s and 2000s.
According to Rescue Time, 5% of employees start their day before 7 AM and 40% are using their computers after 10 PM. More than a quarter of work is undertaken by employees outside of standard office hours, with an average of 89 hours of work outside of these hours, per employee, per year. That’s the equivalent of more than two standard working weeks.
The IES says that managers, professionals, operatives and assembly workers are all workers that regularly work longer hours.
Organisational cultures that glorify working long hours as a badge of honour and heavy workloads are some of the biggest reasons why people have to work longer hours. Some managers are very suspicious of employees that make requests to work flexibly or from home.
Many still see “working from home” as a euphemism for shirking work, while other organisations have flexible working schemes that result in employees taking reductions in pay despite delivering the same amount of work.
Long Hours, Less Work
In 1955 Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian, wrote an article for The Economist. He started it with the words “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”, a phrase that later became known as Parkinson’s Law.
This remains the case with working long hours today. According to Rescue Time, employees are productive for less than three hours a day when using computers and other devices. Part of this comes from the fact that the average employee checks their email and instant messaging services every 6 minutes.
Employees also spend some of their work time looking at non-work sites and apps. According to Business News Daily, employees spend around an hour each day using their smartphone.
Some choose to play games from sites like Paddy Power Casino, while others browse social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. Paying bills, shopping online, and reading the news are all popular activities too.
Based on this information, it’s reasonable to assume that the same amount of work can be achieved in fewer hours. It is widely reported that Germany has the lowest working hours and the most public holidays in all of Europe, despite having the highest levels of productivity. Therefore, a work-life balance is not only possible but beneficial to everyone involved.
Many employees have negative perceptions of HR departments, with older employees having the most negative feelings. This is particularly true when employees perceive HR as seeing employees as a “cost” rather than an “asset”, which has been found by Cornell University to lead to a decline in employee satisfaction and commitment.
Actions that can lead to this perception include:
- Intense scrutiny of how long employees spend on each task
- Close monitoring of punctuality and attendance, strict enforcement of docking pay, and lack of flexibility for extenuating circumstances (such as illness or bereavement)
- Close monitoring of employee computer and internet usage
- Any monitoring of toilet breaks
- Low holiday allowances
- Strict rules about mobile phone use that isn’t for security or data protection purposes
These can lead to a poor work-life balance. Employees that are left demotivated by it will become less productive, which could mean they have to work longer to achieve the same results.
Instead, HR policies should be set that focus on an employee’s output rather than the time they spend on delivering their work.
By defining responsibilities and providing measurable targets, employees and employers can objectively and constructively monitor success. If a piece of work is delivered on time and meeting its requirements, then the employee has succeeded, regardless of the number of hours it took to achieve it.
Enforcing Digital Downtime
Since we can check our emails from our smartphones at any time of the day, communication can often creep into personal time. This promotes an “always-on” work culture, eroding the boundaries between work time and non-work time.
The same goes for lunch breaks, where employees eat at their desks to get more work done. This gives their minds no time to switch off and can have negative effects in the longer term.
Switching off access to emails during non-work hours and encouraging employees to have lunch away from their desks can deliver significant benefits.
Allow and Promote Flexible Working
If you are trusting your employees to deliver their work on their terms, then when and where they work is not important. Allowing flexible working can help employees fit their personal lives around work.
This frees up employees to stop worrying about doing things like visiting the dentist or working from home while their car is in the garage.
It’s not just about putting the mechanisms in place to allow for flexible working, it needs to be actively encouraged. The IES listed an employee’s lack of awareness of flexible arrangements was one of the biggest barriers to reducing long work hours. A recent example of this is Twitter, which announced a new policy to allow employees to “work from home forever”.
A strong work-life balance is important for establishing productive workplace cultures. As has been shown in Germany and by Parkinson’s Law, an increase in hours worked does not necessarily correlate with an increase in work done.
Therefore, businesses should use their HR policies to facilitate and promote flexible working systems that empower employees to deliver the work required of them on their own terms.